You have said that your first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was written over many years, but Perfect is published only a year later. Was the writing process very different for your second novel?
The truth is, I have been thinking about Perfect for even longer than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The idea about the cost of perfection and an accident that changes everything, as well as the central characters, have all been loitering in my head for many years. I could always see Byron and Diana, him a little too big, her a little too fragile, and I knew I needed to find out more about who they were and what happened to them. Sometimes I have even tried fitting them into other stories, but it never felt right because this is where they belong. They belong in a hot English July, where the air is heavy with the scent of white nicotiana flowers and the moor glows behind them in the afternoon sun. They belong in a period where the summer holidays stretch long and empty ahead. Where women spend days alone, looking after home and family. Where children invent long elaborate games to while away the time.
As with most things, the story has grown over time. New characters have stepped in. Things I couldn’t understand have become clearer. I have played with different versions until I found this one. It was only as I began to write it this time round, for instance, that it dawned on me that it wasn’t a contemporary story and neither was it an urban one. (It began in my imagination as both.) It was only this time, too, that I thought about splitting the story between two tenses and two periods in time.
Otherwise, the writing process was very similar with both books. I sat here every day and I wrote and rewrote and rewrote. And some days I was happy; others I wasn’t.
Was there an event – something that happened to you or to someone you know – that first triggered the story?
It is difficult for me to know why I choose to write certain stories. Often I don’t understand until many years later. (If I understood, would I need to write them?) But I do remember vividly when the first nugget of this story came to me. It was just over twelve years ago, after the birth of my third child, and I was driving my oldest daughter to school. My second daughter was telling me she was hungry, she needed breakfast now, the baby was crying, and on the passenger seat beside me was the plate of cakes I had got up at dawn to make for the very competitive children’s bake stall. I was driving slowly. Traffic was heavy. I had barely slept for days. And then I had one of those moments when you lift out of yourself, when you see your life from a new perspective, and it occurred to me that if I made a mistake, if someone ran into the road, if anything unexpected happened, I did not have the energy, the space, the wherewithal, the presence of mind even, to deal with it. I was stretched as far as I could go. I began writing the story as soon as I got home.
Why did you choose to set one half of the novel in 1972?
I tried telling the story from a number of different perspectives before I decided to set it in 1972 – when I was ten – and through the eyes of Diana’s son, Byron. A lot of novelists have written brilliantly from the point of view of a child and initially I was nervous about tackling the same area, but, no matter where I put the story, it always began with him. Byron is rather like an unreliable narrator. He thinks he sees the truth (and sometimes he sees things with more insight than the adults in the story), but he also misunderstands and a lot of what happens in the book comes from those misunderstandings. So when I began to write, I found it useful to think about my childhood. I listened to music we were playing then to jog my memory. (I am very influenced by music as I write. Sometimes I listen to the same piece over and over.) I found old photographs. I reminisced endlessly with friends. I watched TV clips. I bought books from that year. (They smell of ice cream. Why is that?) Then two things happened that gave me little bristles of excitement. The first was that I found my old diary from 1972 – it records very little apart from school lunches (although I can’t resist sharing a short extract, see below) – but at the end I had pasted a double page from The Times, listing the news events of that year. The second was that in researching 1972, I learnt about the addition of two leap seconds. And this was so right for the story, such a perfect twist, that it was like being given a present. It was like the moment in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry when I realized the truth about Harold’s son, David – the story sort of fell into place.
How much of the novel is based on real places and people?
The moor setting is fictitious. There is no real Cranham Moor. But – as with Harold Fry’s story – I stepped out of our house and drew on what I saw. I had to remove a lot of houses in order to get my moor – and extend it – but it is inspired by what I am lucky enough to catch glimpses of from the window of my writing shed as I look across the hills. The pictures of the land at dawn, the night sky, the meadow of flowers, these are all things I see. What’s more, these are things I love to notice. It gives me ridiculous pleasure, for instance, to see that the wild garlic is in flower one week or that the cow parsley has grown several inches. There are many other little snapshots of my life woven into the story although the characters are not based on anyone in particular. I think I tend to find people in my head that I want to explore and maybe all of them have an element or two of me in them. I don’t know. I spoke to a number of people about OCD and read a lot and whilst it is not a condition I suffer from, I have dealt with issues that seemed to have similar beginnings or resonances. Like Diana, I have sat down by the pond waiting for the goose to lay her egg so that the crows won’t get it. I, too, built a bridge over a pond when I was little, which collapsed under my feet and swallowed my flip flops. I, too, have a beetle keyring. In my teens, I rang a number advertising a leather settee to complain that the owner should not describe it as ‘nigger brown’. I haven’t carried an armchair down to the fields as yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out. For me, writing is about finding the links between myself and the characters as a way of better understanding.
Can anything be perfect? Is that what this story is about?
I remember when I was a child my dad showed me the wall of a Victorian cemetery near where we lived. He loved the fact that the builders had deliberately broken the pattern just once because ‘nothing’s perfect’.
For me, this is a story about mistakes. It’s about the myth of perfection. I think it is very dangerous to believe things can and should be perfect. That implies a static point of arrival and I can’t help feeling nothing is ever truly finished or certain or flawless. So from there, it becomes a story about the nature of truth as well as perfection. For instance, was there really an accident – or did Byron imagine it? What is Diana’s past? Is Beverley Diana’s friend or her rival? Other questions are more oblique. How do we know time is accurate? How do we know there is one sky? How can we ever really communicate when words hold such different subjective meanings? These are all questions that haunted me as I wrote. I was telling someone about the story the other day and she told me that in some cultures the past is not behind us; it is ahead of us where we can see it. The future is behind – because it is still hidden and unknown. I found this idea fascinating. For me, it is the equivalent of Byron realizing that time is not necessarily a series of forward-moving, regular spaces.
Having said that, this is a story about the tender moment when a child becomes the height of a parent and a parent realizes he or she is maybe still a child. It is about people who have been damaged by the past, who have strayed from the paths they were supposed to follow,, and the healing power of friendship. I suppose it is a book about sadness, too. I don’t think I am alone in sometimes feeling sad. I really don’t. But I suppose it is a story that has come from something deep inside me.